Why KeepCup can’t save the world

It just doesn’t stack up. United Baristas fact checks KeepCup’s claims about their Thermal cup.

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Reusable cup company KeepCup made the claim last week on Instagram that their Thermal cup model has a lower environmental impact than paper cups after eight uses. The post raised eyebrows and disapproval in private messages amongst people who know about such things.

In this article we are going to shine a light on the life cycle assessment so you can judge claims like this for yourself and determine whether a KeepCup is right for you and your customers.

Before we begin the analysis, it’s a shame to be talking about cups again. The discussion over take out cups has already taken too much of the coffee industry’s time and resources – and with very little benefit. As will become apparent, the difference between the best and worst scenarios is so small compared to the scale of the challenge before us that it is impossible to prevent climate change through cup selection. There are also much easier ways to make larger differences. So it is United Baristas’ position that the coffee industry should focus its efforts and limited resources on areas where big gains can be made with the least effort.

Also United Baristas believes that we should be committed to building the industry and each other up. We have deliberately chosen not to single out specific reusable cup companies while working to shift the industry’s focus onto more meaningful matters. But KeepCup’s post changes that position. Ideally, we would like to never have to talk about reusable versus take out cups again. As an industry we should be working towards big, realistic and ambitious goals, like an 80 to 90% reduction in coffee’s carbon footprint by 2040. To do this we need to make significant progress now and every year onwards. We don’t want the noise around KeepCup’s claim to slow the industry from making progress. We must keep moving forwards.

Carbon footpints

Calculating the carbon footprint of a product is becoming increasingly easy as there are now standards, methodologies and databases one can use. The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the internationally agreed approach and this includes the carbon generated from cradle to grave including the materials, manufacturer, distribution, use and disposal of an item. It’s an incredibly useful tool, mainly because it allows the comparison of options.

A takeout cup and lid is about five percent of a coffee’s carbon footprint

When a coffee drinker uses a paper takeout cup, the calculations are simple because all the embodied carbon is attributed to a single use. There have been a number of studies on paper cups and there is some range in the assessments because of variations in national electricity generation and different cup designs. So for this example we’re going to pick a number at the slightly heavier end of the consensus, which we have used before of 11 g of embodied carbon dioxide for a cup and lid. This 11 grams is written as 11 g CO₂e – that is, carbon dioxide equivalent. The model takes all the climate change-causing gases and converts them to a single number so we can more readily compare. It’s common practice to casually shorten CO₂e to ‘carbon dioxide’ or even ‘carbon’, but of course these are technically different things.

Calculating carbon for things we use multiple times

For items that are used a number of times across their life, the carbon footprint is a little more complicated because we have to calculate both the embodied energy required to make the item in the first place (just like with the paper cup) plus the additional carbon footprint each time we use it. We’ve covered this before explaining the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee, which includes single-use coffee and multi-use coffee equipment, plus other things such as shipping.

LCAs have found the key cause of emissions from multi-use cups is their washing, as there is carbon dioxide generated from the water treatment, electricity to heat the water and the detergent. Generally it’s most carbon efficient to clean cutlery and crockery in a fully-loaded dishwasher.

Obviously, the exact carbon emissions per use will vary with a number of factors such as the dishwasher model (or if a coffee drinker should hand wash which typically has a higher footprint) and a country’s types of electricity generation (the UK has about half the carbon per kWh of US electricity for example). In this instance we are going to use a range KeepCup supplied in response to our questions of 8 – 10 g CO₂e per wash. To make things easier, we’ll average it to 9 g as this is similar to other LCAs.

Which is better for the environment – The KeepCup Thermal or a paper cup?

The answer is, of course, it depends. But we can do better than that because we have the LCA information to calculate the breakeven.

First we take the total carbon footprint of the product. We are still waiting on KeepCup to provide this information (it really should be in the LCA document), but they told us in response to our questions that the embodied carbon in the Thermal cup is 1600 grams. There is some additional carbon emission for things like the packaging and shipping, which we are going to ignore for now – you’ll see why below.

At the beginning of our calculations, the KeepCup Thermal has a footprint of approximately 1600 grams and the paper cup has zero. With each takeout coffee we drink, the KeepCup’s footprint goes up 9 g for washing and the paper cup increases our footprint by 11 grams.

We can represent this in a graph showing the cumulative carbon footprint for the two cups over 1000 coffees.

The total carbon footprint of a KeepCup Thermal compared to paper cups over 1000 coffees.

For this scenario, the breakeven point is around 800 coffees. We can work it out as we know that washing a cup (including reusable cups) emits about 2 g of carbon less than the embodied energy in a paper take out cup. So the incremental benefit is 2 grams per use. So the number of uses for the breakeven is:

11 g (carbon in the paper cup and lid) – 9 g (from the energy required to wash a cup) = 2 g carbon benefit per use for using a reusable cup

This difference is less than one percent of a latte’s carbon footprint, which is why it’s seldom worth talking about. But in this case it is useful because we can divide the increment benefit into the total carbon footprint of a reusable cup. For the Keep Cup Thermal in this example:

1600 g (embodied carbon in a KeepCup Thermal ) / 2 g (incremental benefit) = 800 uses

So, if you are going to use this cup over 800 times, this cup will lower your footprint. If you were to use it less than that (or use it instead of the coffee shop porcelain crockery) your total footprint would increase 😞.

LCAs and breakevens are great because they provide individuals and companies with the information they need to decide which option is best for them. Obviously, the perfect cup for me isn’t necessarily the perfect cup for you. So while there are some people who’ll use a reusable cup over 800 times (by the way, that’s every weekday for over three years), many and maybe even most people wouldn’t.

Why does KeepCup claim eight uses?

This is a really good question, and one that has taken some probing to get an answer – and I’m still not sure that we are there (check out the Instagram comments).

The methodology and requirements of an LCA include all the emissions, from cradle to grave. If you remember, in the embodied carbon figure above KeepCup missed out the packaging, shipping and energy required to dispose of the item at the end of its life. In this Instagram post, KeepCup are actually stating that the packaging, shipping and disposal is equal to eight paper cups alone. So, once a coffee drinker has used the Thermal Cup eight times instead of a paper cup, on the ninth use the coffee drinker starts to get the incremental two grams of CO₂e benefit between washing and a paper cup.

The total carbon footprint of the KeepCup Thermal, minus its embodied carbon, equates to eight takeout cups says KeepCup

Confused? If you are, you have every reason to be. The KeepCup post is an odd way to communicate an environmental breakeven. And if you accept their logic, it would be more true to say that there is an incremental benefit from the very first use. Furthermore the language in the post is vague so it can easily be misunderstood to mean that the Thermal cup has a total carbon footprint of eight paper cups – which would be grossly wrong. If we use the above inputs and information from KeepCup the total uses to breakeven is 808.

8 uses for packaging, distribution and end of life + 800 uses for the embodied carbon = 808 uses 

The great thing about these last days of back and forth with KeepCup is that it’s become apparent to us that the coffee industry is now smarter and too well educated about carbon footprints to accept poor communication and odd claims like this at face value. It was in fact someone in the coffee industry that brought this post to our attention because they immediately understood it to be wrong. But we need to spread the breakeven message across our communities and to our customers, so that they too can start to make better decisions that lower their carbon footprint.

The breakeven is more like 808 uses.

We’ve been calling on KeepCup to retract the claim or make another post with clearer, more accurate information. Let’s hope that they do it quickly. It would be a real shame for consumers to buy this cup and to see their carbon footprint go up.

By the way, potential customers may very well be better to spend their money on a UK tree planting initiative. A KeepCup Thermal costs £24 – £26 in the UK. For £25.80, through this project you can take about 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to the embodied carbon in 1250 KeepCup Thermals, or the carbon saved if you were to use this cup 1 million times – that would be an extraordinary coffee drinker consuming 35 cups of coffee every day for 80 years!

So where does the coffee industry want to go from here?

As the world incrementally lifts from lockdown, let’s get back to the things that really make a difference in tackling climate change. Let’s cut our carbon footprint by choosing milks more carefully, reducing energy consumption of espresso machines and building more energy-efficient coffee shops.

This is a great challenge before us, it’s going to take efforts from all of us as well as our smartest and best work yet. But United Baristas wants this to happen as soon as possible and we believe the industry is up to the task. Join with us and let’s reduce coffee’s carbon footprint.

Reference and further reading

• View KeepCups Thermal cup LCA report
• Smil, Vaclav (2014). Making the World Modern: materials and dematerialization, Wiley
• Reusable or Disposable: Which coffee cup has a smaller footprint?
• Taking a closer look at paper cups for coffee, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland
• Life cycle assessment (LCA) of reusable and single-use coffee cups, CIRAIG for Recyc-Québec